The animated material for Il ritorno d'Ulisse, a 1998 collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company, used fragments from History of the Main Complaint, which came before the opera and served as a sketch not for the plot or character of the opera, but a sketch to see if the drawings I did and the music of Monteverdi were compatible.

The opera Il ritorno d'Ulisse follows Homer and recounts Ulisse’s return after the Trojan War, his routing of the suitors who have besieged Penelope in the palace on Ithaca, and his reuniting with Penelope. What Monteverdi and his librettist Badoaro added was a prologue in which the attributes of Human Frailty, Time, Fortune, and Love dispute over what will happen to Ulisse. It was this prologue, with its central theme and image of the human as vulnerable rather than heroic, that brought me to do the opera. Throughout the opera there is constant shifting both in the words and in the music between Ulisse's optimism that he will prevail and a fatalism that everything will be too hard. The prologue sets a tone and establishes a central set of images of the body which find their way through the opera.

The Internal Lightning Bolt

The process of making the opera took approximately a year—eight months of making drawings and editing animation film, and designing and carving puppets (done by Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company), and four months of rehearsing.

Part of this preparation involved looking through a series of medical videos. These were of operations, barium meals, gastroscopies, angiograms, arthroscopy, and so on. One of the most remarkable for me was an angiogram—an X-ray image of dye being pumped into arteries around the heart. As the dye is released in one heartbeat, in one pulse, it suffuses and turns black a jagged tracery of the arteries. I had always assumed these to be gently curving aerodynamically, or at least ergonomically designed. But the vessels are stepped, jaggedly forked. This piece of film was put aside and sat on the editing room shelf waiting to find its place. It is used early on in the opera. The god Giove comes to take a hand in the affairs and fortunes of Ulisse, and as the singer sings the lines "I release thunderbolts," we projected an image of what appears a lighting strike, but in fact is this angiogram—a lightning strike inside the body.

—Copyright © 2004 by William Kentridge


William Kentridge directs Handspring Puppet Company's production of The Return of Ulysses at The Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, November 14–16.